Toward a Liberal Traditionalism

"Active participation" in the liturgy has caused endless controversy in the West. Perhaps it's time to look to the Christian East for a way forward.

“We don’t need any more refugees from the Bogus Disordo.” That was my friend Andrew’s response when I told him that our family is becoming Melkite. As you can probably guess, Andrew is a hardcore Latin-Masser. So was I, for my first ten years as a Catholic. And for what it’s worth, I still prefer the Latin Mass to the Novus Ordo. One thing has definitely changed, though: I’m not quite so afraid of the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

Take, for instance, a new essay in America that has been making the rounds. In it, Fr. Kevin Irwin argues that we ought to understand the Mass as a corporate act—that the laity are an essential part in the Holy Sacrifice. He cites the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium as saying,

The baptized and the ordained “offer” the Mass “each in that way that is proper to [themselves].” This explains why the Roman Canon has always used “we offer” (offerimus) to refer to the action of the Mass, not “I offer” on behalf of the laity.

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We should note that many progressive Catholics are opposed to private Masses on principle.  They don’t believe that priests should offer the Holy Sacrifice except in the presence of laymen.  

Of course, this is all part of progressives’ wider obsession with “lay participation” in the Mass, and in the Church more widely. It explains everything about the modern Church—from the use of the vernacular in the Mass, to all that call-and-response in the Novus Ordo, to the three laywomen serving in Pope Francis’ CDF.

Some conservatives believe this opposition stems from a desire to de-emphasize the sacrificial nature of the Mass and to downplay Christ’s priesthood more generally. And, in many cases, I’m sure that’s true! All the same, it strikes me that “private Divine Liturgies” never evolved in the Eastern churches—neither Catholic nor Orthodox. And that’s not a quirk of history. Rather, it runs counter to the Eastern understanding of worship. As the Melkite prayer book explains,

The word “Liturgy” is the name given to the public act of the solemn corporate worship of God by the priestly society of Christians, the Body of Christ. As members of Christ, they share in His priesthood. They must, then, share also in His prayer and immolation. The Liturgy is the common action of the people of God, with and through their priests—with and through the High Priest, the Man-God, Jesus Christ.  

This is why laymen chant during Divine Liturgy as much (if not more than) the priest. It’s also why Eastern churches have always preferred to worship in the vernacular.

Our prayer book also quotes St. John Chrysostom, who was rather in favor of “lay participation”:

We are all one body. We differ only as one member may differ from another; and, therefore, we should not cast all upon the priests, but we should all be involved in the care of the whole Church as one body.

I love that.  

Now, I also love Evelyn Waugh’s defense of the Tridentine Low Mass:

I am old now but when I was young I was received into the Church. I was not at all attracted by the splendor of her great ceremonies—which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love.

And I love that the Catholic Church makes room for both—the solemn beauty of the Latin Mass and the beautiful chaos of the Divine Liturgy. 

What I’m not so fond of is the Western liturgists’ attempts to (re)incorporate this “lay participation” into the Roman Rite, which has been underway since Vatican II. Somehow it lacks both the spontaneity and the beauty of Eastern liturgy. It’s more boring and yet also less reverent. Now, why is that? Is the language inferior? What about the chant-tones? Or is it simply the absence of a “culture of participation” in the Western Church? I have no idea. And, in a sense, it doesn’t matter.

My point is simply this: greater “lay participation” is fully compatible with beautiful, reverent, and traditional worship. What’s more, I believe that many Roman Catholics who desire more such “participation” (at least in the Mass) do so for the right reasons. I expect the Council Fathers of Vatican II in particular were inspired by the Eastern Catholic liturgies.  

The problem with the Novus Ordo is that…well, it seems like what it is: a ritual drafted by a committee of elderly Italian bureaucrats in the 1960s. Even if they went into that committee with the best of intentions—which, to be sure, not all of them did—there’s no way their rubrics could have measured up to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The late nineteenth century was a historic low point for Christian culture and a historic high point for curial decadence.  

Put simply: when we talk about the liturgy, conservatives and progressives are having two different conversations. Conservatives may sometimes be too quick to dismiss progressives’ desire for greater “lay participation.” At the same time, progressives are certainly too quick to dismiss conservatives’ warning that traditions can’t be created or developed by committees. Put simply: when we talk about the liturgy, conservatives and progressives are having two different conversations. Tweet This

And, to be clear, I’m not saying the Roman Rite should become more “participatory.” I’m not arguing for a “reform of the reform.” Instead, maybe we should consider Eastern Catholic churches as an alternative to the old Roman Rite, for those who prefer a less formal style of worship. We don’t have to question such folks’ commitment to Catholicism. We don’t have to pressure them into attending the Traditional Latin Mass if it doesn’t nourish their souls. We don’t have to push them into the liberals’ arms by suggesting that, if they don’t prefer the TLM, they must be a crypto-Modernist.  

Rather, we can entrust them to Eastern Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Or we can send them to the Anglican Ordinariate, if that’s the way they swing. Either way, we can embrace a liberal traditionalism—“liberal” in the best sense of the term, meaning generous and broad-minded, compassing the true fullness of Catholic tradition.

Look: I don’t think anyone will contradict me if I say that, here in the West, the Church is in bad shape. Pope Francis is right: we need to leave our own comfort zones and meet folks where they are. But we need to do so without sacrificing the fundamentals of our Faith. Happily, there are twenty-four “particular churches” (not counting the Ordinariates) within the Universal Church, representing an astonishing variety of approaches to liturgy, theology, and spirituality.  

We Christians are at war for the world, and these are powerful weapons. We can’t afford to lay aside a single one.


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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